On the Isle of Jura

George Orwell's desk on Jura

Three years ago when Howard and I travelled up to the west coast of Scotland and the Isle of Skye, I took Madeleine Bunting's Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey to read on the long train ride north, and found it to be a perfect introduction to the landscape and culture I would soon be immersed in. Bunting's book is lighter in tone and scope than those previously discussed (Philip Marsden's The Summer Isles and David Grange's The Frayed Atlantic Edge), but I don't mean that in a pejorative sense. If her book has more of a travelogue quality, it's nonethess informative, perceptive, and engaging, providing a good overview of an archipelago rich in history and story.

Like Marsden and Grange, Bunting writes about the western islands from an outsider's perspective, following the footsteps of authors who've been drawn to these wild shores for generations. In her chapter on the Isle of Jura, example, she visits Barnhill, the ramshackle farmhouse where George Orwell retreated to write his dystopian classic, Nineteen Eighty-Four. In Orwell's day, Bunting tells us,

"there was no daily postal service, no telephone and no electricity at Barnhill. The nearest shop was a twenty-five mile round trip, the nearest doctor was on Islay. Orwell was delighted: the place was 'extremely unget-at-able' he declared. He had fled the telephone, the requests for journalism and the busy chatter of London life, he explained in letters. Love of Country by Madeleine Bunting His recurrent fear of assassination since his time in Barcelona in 1936-7 abated, although he still kept a gun at hand. But he wanted his friends to visit and gave detailed instructions for the forty-eight-hour journey from London, with train and ferry times. What resulted were some tense ménages with assorted friends and relatives, which [his sister] Avril was left to deal with when Orwell retreated to his room with his typewriter. One visitor, a young student, David Holbrook, reminisced, 'I wanted to talk to him about life, about politics, Spain and that sort of thing, but he was wheezing away about an Arctic tern.'  

"Orwell's letters portray Barnhill as a powerful emotional counterbalance to his pervasive pessimism in those years. After an autumn spent in bed in the damp house in 1947, he was taken to a Lanarkshire sanatorium for treatment [for tuberculosis] and he wrote to a friend, 'Not much use worrying about Palestine or anything else. This stupid war is coming off in about 10-20 years and this country will be blown off the map whatever else happens. The only hope is to have a home with a few animals in some place not worth a bomb. If the show does start and is as bad as one fears, it could be fairly easy to be self-supporting on the island provided one wasn't looted.' His comments owed much to that mid-20th-century British conception of islands, and the Hebrides in particular, as salvific, the last refuge. 'When one considers how things have gone since 1930 or thereabouts, it is not easy to believe in the survival of civilization,' he wrote. The first title he had considered for Nineteen Eighty-Four was The Last Man in Europe. On stormy nights in Barnhill, his sense of foreboding may have led him to think he was writing about himself....

Orwell at Work  photographed by Vernon Richards

Barnhill on the island of Jura

"Jura's remoteness was Orwell's only explanation for his decision to move there. But given his deep love of the English countryside, it was an intriguing choice. There were plenty of remote houses in England where the farming and gardening might have been more productive. Jura was a landscape unlike any other he had lived in, and it enabled him to produce a novel which was quite unlike anything else he had ever written, and at a speed, despite his illness, which he had never managed before.

"Barnhill gave him the vantage point from which to create its opposite in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The character Julia offers the one glimmer of hope in the book; her unabashed love of sex was 'above all what he [Winston] wanted to hear' because it was 'not merely the love of one person but the animal instinct'. Living at Barnhill gave Orwell an experience akin to Julia's 'animal instinct', of a deeply experiential, instinctive world away from abstractions.

"In Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell describes people who can no longer understand freedom or truth because history has been corrupted, repeatedly rewritten in the 'Records Department', and in the process their identity and that of England has been erased. Freedom is no longer imaginable because there is no language to describe it; as the state functionary Syme says, 'Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.' At one point, Orwell's character Winston Smith can no longer remember his parents. He asks himself, 'Did his parents live in England? England was its name, he thought, or Britain.'

Orwell and goat

"Orwell was writing these lines when living amongst a Gaelic community; the neighbouring crofters with whom he shared the tasks of harvesting would never have been allowed to forget their parents, or where they had lived, given the Gaelic emphasis on genealogy and place. Did Jura and its losses -- of language and history -- creep into the background texture of Nineteen Eighty-Four, providing small details in the vision of how identity -- and thus freedom -- were lost?

"Literary critics of Orwell's work tend to regard Jura as incidental, no more than a backdrop, and their focus has been on Orwell, the man. Their references to Jura have often been simply comments on its remoteness. But Orwell had an acute sense of place; he understood how it expressed history and generated identity. He used vivid evocations of both city and countryside to express his most important political ideas in books such as Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Coming Up for Air, and Down and Out in Paris and London. This Atlantic edge of Britain has been a battleground for different interpretations of freedom, and how history and identity create the conditions for them, as I was to discover several times on my journeys. What Orwell found on Jura were reminders of those freedoms which had been lost in urban Britain, and which sustained and inspired him."

George Orwell at Barnhill.

Bunting's book is full of vivid snapshots like this of people, places and stories throughout the Hebrides. She's a fine raconteur and a good traveling companion for readers who prefer some gentle island-hopping to vigorous journeys by sailboat or kayak, or as a follow-up to such epic adventures.

For more on Orwell and other writers on islands, follow the links in this previous post.

Small Isles Bay  Jura  photograph by William Herron

Words: The passage above is from Love of Country by Madeleine Bunting (Granta Books, 2016). All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: George Orwell on the Isle of Jura in the 1940s.


A figment of fog

photograph by David Grange

photograph by David Gange

Following on from yesterday's post...

Here's one more selection from David Gange's excellent book The Frayed Atlantic Edge , weaving history, literary reflections, and vivid descriptions of the natural world into the story of a year-long journey down the coast of Britain and Ireland by kayak. In the following passage, the author is heading to the Isle of Skye in the Scottish Hebrides:

''A folk history of the wests coasts of Great Britain and Ireland like no other.''"The long, dark night I spent between knuckles of knock and lochan on the edge of the Inner Sound was intensely atmospheric. I hunkered down against a thin smurr of rain, sometimes caught in moonlight, with the thick smell of sodden peat eclipsing the salt of sea just feet away. And I read about the most celebrated boats to have plied this water. The book I read, Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair's The Birlinn of Clanranald, is one of the great Gaelic seafaring epics: an Iliad in which the Troy to be stormed is this Hebridean sea itself. Written in the 1750s, it's set at a time before Culloden, when islanders still wore kilts and chain shirts: its symbols often seem to belong to the 15th and 18th centuries simultaneously. The author was a Jacobite who commanded fifty men and tutored Prince Charlie. When Hanover triumphed at Culloden he left the mainland for the Hebrides to escape recrimination for the scathing verse he'd aimed at the new royals. His world remained that of the seafaring clans MacDonald and Clanranald: the north of Ireland, Argyll, Islay, Uist, Canna and Skye.

Birlinn"The birlinn was bigger than the sixareens of Shetland, comprising twelve to eighteen oars and a square sail. Although clinker-built in the Norse tradition, it was a further step removed from Norway, not double-ended but with a flat sterm to permit a steering oar or a rudder. Sailing seas north from Ireland, birlinns became a currency of leige and lordship: the number of galleys a clan could muster defined its prestige. The birlinn is therefore immortalised on clan crests and the walls of coastal chapels such as Rodel (Harris) and Rob Donn's Balnakeil. The birlinn is therefore immortalised on clan crests and the walls of coastal chapels such as Rodel (Harris) and Rob Donn's Balnakeil. Just as the culture of Sutton Hoo dragged boats up hills for symbolic burials, the societies of these islands brought the sea ashore, placing symbolic ships at the centre of their towns, castles and churches. In this way, the birlinn became an icon of the Atlantic ties that bound Ireland, Man, Argyll and the Hebrides. It recalls cultural formations, such as the Lordship of the Isles, that show Scotland -- like England, Wales, Ireland and Britain -- to be an idea moving through these islamds only a little slower than a ship at sea. Before these nations, each only really united by modern legal codes, there were, for millenia, loose confederations of multilingual, multi-ethnic interest groups.

photograph by David Grange

photograph by David Grange

"Tradition holds that, seeking inspiration for The Birlinn of Clanranald while he was baillie of the isle of Canna, Alasdair lay beneath an unturned vessel on a Hebridean shore. Entombing himself in darkness, with only the smell of the boat for company, was a strategy to spark imagination. The principle became an idée fixe among Atlantic aficionados. Ludwig Wittgenstein, for instance, channelled Alasdair when he claimed to 'only think clearly in the dark' and, in 1948, fled the street lamps of south-east England for waters the birlinns had travelled: he noted, with approval, that the Irish Atlantic he found was 'one of the last pools of darkness in Europe'. Seamus Heaney, at his most elemental and earthy, wrote himself into this proud tradition. Flight  photograph by David GrangeThe final lines of 'North' are set on a long strand with only the 'secular powers of the Atlantic thundering'. The sea inspires reverie that sends the poet spiralling back centuries to see the water as the road of Norsemen. The 'swimming tongue' of a historic longship speaks to Heaney and invokes the poetic darkside:

   ‘Lie down
   in the word-hoard, burrow   
   the coil and glea
   of your furrowed brain.
 
   Compose in darkness.   
   Expect aurora borealis   
   in the long foray
   but no cascade of light.
 
   Keep your eye clear
   as the bleb of the icicle,
   trust the feel of what nubbed treasure   
   your hands have known.’


"It is perhaps surprising that the poetic fiction born of Alasdair's self-imposed enclosure contains such detailed description of the birlinn's structure and the actions of its crew. It is the best evidence we have for the facts of what this vessel was. No examples of the boat -- even wrecked -- survive: in 1493, When James IV absorbed the Lordship of the Isles under the Scottish Crown he demanded that all birlinns be burned to end the power of the sea lords.

photograph by David Grange

photograph by David Grange

"Alasdair's birlinn moves through a Hebridean sea that's as cunning and wise as human or animal. It's an old manwith streaming grey hair and a creature with gaping jaws and matted pelt. As a respected foe, the sea's will is pitched against the desires of the boatmen. It responds to being struck with oars until, eventually, it submits to human strength. The boat is also alive, crying out like a person and whinnying like a mare, treading waves not with planks and thwarts but shoulders and thighs. Boat and boatmen are one: the sweat on the sailors' brows is the brine foaming around the bow. And the boat becomes their homeland as they climb creaking mast and ropes 'as quickly as May squirrels on the trees of a dense forest'. At sea all distinctions between animate and inanimate, sentient and insensible, human and animal, flounder. In these verses, as in much writing on its waters, the Minch is layered with metaphor; the inter-island seas are known like friends and rivals; waves and tides are feared or loved like animals of hill and forest. Here is humanity engaged in the quest for mastery over nature: for separation from the seething conflicts of the bestial, elemental world. But to Alasdair's protagonists, before the age of steam and steel, that quest still seemed impossible; dividing lines, distinctions and disentanglements can rarely survive a single line of verse.

Western-isles-385

Western-isles-383

"Next morning, I prepared my own encounter with the grey-haired sea in mist that made me alert to animal encounters. Before I even hit the water, a brute of a dog otter surfaced on its back, scarred snout and crab catch raised above the waves. It didn't bother to acknowledge my presence but rolled like a thing uncoiling, then lolloped noiselessly into brown remains of bracken. It took seconds from its departure for its passing to feel mythic, and moments later I was moving through cold smoke-like rain towards a lunchtime landing beneath the Rona lighthouse.

"This night in the fog had established the tone for the month. As I crossed the Inner Sound and kayaked each long finger of Skye's western edge I breathed mist, drifted through sweeping rain, and saw the island only as shape-shifting cliffs that loomed, suddenly, from saturated skies. Headlands were bands of thick dark haze, and I found I could judge my distance from them not by their size but by the degree to which they blackened the otherwise featureless pall of grey.

photograph by David Grange

"The otter felt like an appropriate sigil of this place because it has long been treated as hybrid and unknowable. Like the barnacle goose, otters were a conumndrum for the monkish administration of Lent: both seemed more fish than bird or mammal. Some Carthusian monks were forbidden meat all year round. Instead, they ate otter. In Norse and Celtic story otters, particularly otter kings, change form and grant wishes, but only in the unlikely event of their capture: the animal's fluidity gives it the character in water of intangible smoke in air. The otter is its element: 'ninety per cent water', to the poet Kenneth Steven, and 'ten per cent god'. But they are also friendly 'water dogs'. They brought St Brendan fish and firewood; they warmed and dried the feet of St Cuthbert when he finished his nightly vigils waist-deep in sea. In the work of the great poet-naturalist Colin Simm the otter is a boat that's 'all rudder'; it is Mesolithic, belonging in an ice melt 'a few thousand years back' when elver-silvered rivers still thronged the landscape. Simms has written hundreds of closely observed otter poems, and in many, floods are the creature's medium. Water sweeps land when, in acts of drainage and deforestation, 'a balance of centuries to the balance-sheet yields'. When otters twist and tumble through redrowned vales a historic ordering of water, earth and animal is reprised in a beautiful unplanned catastrophe of rewilding.

photograph by David Grange

photograph by David Grange

"As poets make otters into ribbons of water, so they make Skye a figment of fog, a realm subject not to divine or human law but to 'amorphous rules of light.' When Richard Hugo, poet of the Pacific Northwest, came to live on Skye he wrote that the shifting mists alter the colour of the island a hundred times a day and 'never stop changing the distance to the pier from your front door'. Skye's epithets -- to the Norse, Island of Cloud; Misty Isle to the Gaels -- are aerial and never earthy. The prevalent sou'westerlies are 'the grey wind' that scoops the otherworld of the sea ashore. This island is the grand centrepiece of the Hebridian world, straddling the Minch both north-south and east-west. Smaller than the land mass of Lewis and Harris, its coastline is far longer: its gangly peninsulas intercept fog-bound vessels on a hundred different inter-island routes.

"Skye's geography has long been mystified: it is '60 miles long', according to the mountaineer W.H. Murray, 'but what might be its breadth is beyond the ingenuity of man to state'. This is perhaps why Skye is the most the most zoomorphic of landscapes: an animal island. When factual delineation falters on its ragged edges, diverse living things scuttle in."

photograph by David Grange

Skye-55 (1)

Seal...or selkie? Photograph by David Gange

The passage quoted is from The Frayed Atlantic Edge: A Historian's Journey from Shetland to the Channel by David Gange (William Collins, 2019).  The photographs are also by Gange; visit the Frayed Edge of the Atlantic website to see more. All rights to the text and photographs above reserved by the author/photographer.


More tales from the sea

The sandstone stacks of Northmavine (Shetland Mainland), photograph by David Gange

Shetland coast, photograph by David Gange

Having sailed up the west coasts of Ireland and Scotland in Philip Marsden's The Summer Isles, I'm now kayaking down the same coasts in David Grange's engrossing book, The Frayed Atlantic Edge -- starting in the far north of Shetland this time, and ending up down south in Cornwall.

During a period when physical journeys are hard-to-impossible due to health concerns and travel restrictions, this is arm-chair traveling at its best: mixing robust adventure with reflections on the history, culture and literature of the coastal lands and islands of the Celtic fringe. What is the difference between the two books? Marsden delves more deeply into myth, folklore, and the ancient texts of the regions he travels through, whereas Gange responds to the landscape around him as an historian -- but both books are well worth your time. They compliment rather than compete with each other.

Shetland puffin, photograph by David Gange

The following passage from The Frayed Atlantic Edge will give you a taste of the book. Gange writes:

Frayed Edge of the Atlantic by David Gange"This journey involved arriving, dripping and bedraggled, in dozens of coastal communities. When I set out, I hadn't imagined just how generous the people whose homes and workplaces I dampened would be: without such openness, particularly evident on small islands, this project would never have gotten far. I learned as much through long evenings of discussion as through the other three resources on which the book is based: libraries, archives and the observation of land and sea from the kayak. It wasn't just the spectacles of sea cliffs, nor the drama of ocean weather, but also those social occasions that meant I ended the journey with greatly intensified enthusiasm for scattered Atlantic islands like Foula, Barraigh and Thorai. 

"Such conversations worked to strengthen the conviction I set out with: that British and Irish histories are usually written inside out, perpetuating the misconception that today's land-bound geographies have existed forever. Despite the efforts of authors such as Barry Cunliffe, whose Facing the Ocean: The Atlantic and Its Peoples, 8000 BC to AD 1500 (2001) inspired much debate among historians, the significance of coasts is consistently underestimated, and the potential of small boats as tools to make sense of their histories is rarely explored. 

Orkney in August, photograph by David Gange

Orkney dwelling, photograph by David Gange

"This book sets out to put some of that imbalance right, showing not only that Atlantic geographies have been crucial to British and Irish life but that they continue to be so. It is structured by region, because part of its purpose is to show how similar ingredients of wind, wave and rock have been transformed into entirely different island and coastal cultures by the divergent processes of history. The chapters were written in order, while I travelled, so my process of learning runs parallel to the reader's experience of moving through the book: burrowing gradually deeper into the many ways that the shorelines are significant. This allows the narrative to follow a trajectory in which the opening chapters evoke the act of kayaking, establishing sounds, smells, sights and stories of the venerable tradition of travelling at sea level. Only gradually does the balance shift towards historical research, literary criticism and argument, revealing the implications of new perspectives picked up through slow travel.

Inner Hebrides, photograph by David Gange

Seal colony in the Inner Hebrides, photograph by David Gange

Skye, photograph by David Gange

"The final section, 'The View from the Sea', completes the transition. It switches to a different register as it unpicks historical significance from the chapters. It argues that the whole shape of British history is transformed by granting Atlantic coasts and islands a central rather than marginal role. The implications of key historical moments are problematised or reversed. The so-called Enlightenment, for instance, might best be interpreted as the triumph of a few cities -- Dublin, Edinburgh, London, Birmingham -- at the expense of other regions. For coastal communities it was the beginning, and the cause, of a lengthy dark age. In contrast, much of what were once referred to as Dark Ages had been eras of great coastal strength and enlightenment, when the intellectual traditions of the Irish Atlantic were the most advanced in Europe. Such reversals abound. The widely celebrated Education Acts of 1870 and 1872 were unmitigated disasters for many coastal zones, while the grim economic recession of the 1970s saw an island renaissance unprecedented for two centuries. All British history looks different when inland cities are made remote by seeing them from Atlantic shorelines, and the most powerful element of a year's journey by kayak was immersion in that changed perspective....

Donegal to Galway, photograph by David Gange

Kayak on the west Irish coast, photograph by David Gange

Coastal lambs, photograph by David Gange

"Just as the most significant history often happens on the edge of the islands, the most interesting phenomena regularly occur in the margins between disciplines. Exploring past lives on coasts meant reaching for ideas from geologists, ecologists, naturalists, geographers, anthropologists, artists, poets, novelists or musicians more often than historians. Seabirds, fish and species of seaweed play roles as significant in this book as politicians or their institutions; they has as great an effect on past shoreline lives, and the importance of island pasts today almost always relate both to ecology and community. Talking to naturalists, ecologists, archaeologists and artists was a highlight of researching this book and I'd love to think that such lines of communication might one day be wedged more permanently open."

So would I. 

Munster coast, photograph by David Gange

The photographs here were taken by the author journey during his long, daunting, and fascinating journey. To see more, visit the Frayed Edge of the Atlantic website.

Seal on the Munster coast, photograph by David Gange

Photograph by David Gange

The passage above is from The Frayed Atlantic Edge: A Historian's Journey from Shetland to the Channel by David Gange (William Collins, 2019). All rights to the text and photographs reserved by the author.


A language of land and sea

The Fairy Glen 1

Many of the selkie stories we've been discussing in previous posts come the western and northern islands of Scotland, where they are rooted in the Gaelic storytelling tradition. Now a study from the University of the Highlands and Islands has warned that the Gaelic language is in serious decline. Without intervention, it could die out within the next decade, taking the heart of a culture and its worldview with it. In her book Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey, Madeleine Bunting writes: 

Love of Country"Every nation has its lost histories of what was destroyed or ignored to shape its narrative of unity so that it has the appearance of inevitability. The British Isles with their complex island geography have known various configurations of political power. Gaelic is a reminder of some of them: the multinational empires of Scandinavia, the expansion of Ireland, and the medieval Gaelic kingdom, the Lordship of the Isles, which lost mainland Scotland, and was ultimately suppressed by Edinburgh. The British state imposed centralization, and insisted on English-language education. Only the complex geography of islands and mountains ensured that Gaelic survived into the 21st century.

"What would be lost if Gaelic disappeared in the next century, I asked, when I visited hospitable [Lewis] islanders who pressed me with cups of tea and cake. There is a Gaelic word, cianalas, and it means a deep sense of homesickness and melancholy, I was told. The language of Gaelic offers insight into a pre-industrial world view, suggested Malcolm Maclean, a window on another culture lost in the rest of Britain. As with any language, it offers a way of seeing the world, which makes it precious. Gaelic's survival is a matter of cultural diversity, just as important as ecological diversity, he insisted. It is the accumulation of thousands of years of human ingenuity and resilience living in these island landscapes. It is a heritage of human intelligence shaped by place, a language of the land and sea, with a richness and precision to describe the tasks of agriculture and fishing. It is a language of community, offering concepts and expressions to capture the tightly knit interdependence required in this subsistence economy.

The Fairy Glen 2

The Fairy Glen 3

"Gaelic scholar Michael Newton points out how particular words describe the power of these relationships intertwined with place and community. For example, dúthchas is sometimes translated as 'heritage' or 'birthright,' but conveys a much richer idea of a collective claim on the land, continually reinforced and lived out through the shared management of the land. Dúthchas grounds land rights in communal daily habits and uses of the land. It is at variance with British concepts of individual private property and these land rights received no legal recognition and were relegated to cultural attitudes (as in many colonial contexts). Elements of dúthchas persist in crofting communities, where the grazing committees of the townships still manage the rights to common land and the cutting of peat banks on the moor. Crofting has always been dependent on plentiful labor and required co-operation with neighbors for many of the routine tasks, like peasant cultures across Europe, born out of the day-to-day survival in a difficult environment.

The Fairy Glen 4

"The strong connection to land and community means that 'people belong to places rather than places belong to people,' sums up Newton. It is an understanding of belonging which emphasizes relationships, of responsibilities as well as rights, and in return offers the security of a clear place in the world."

The Fairy Glen 5

Bunting also notes:

"Gaelic's attentiveness to place is reflected in its topographical precision. It has a plentiful vocabulary to describe different forms of hill, peak or slope (beinn, stob, dún, cnoc, sròn), for example, and particular words to describe each of the stages of a river's course from its earliest rising down to its widest point as it enters the sea. Much of the landscape is understood in anthropomorphic terms, so the names of topographical features are often the same as those for parts of the body. It draws a visceral sense of connection between sinew, muscle and bone and the land. Gaelic poetry often attributes character and agency to landforms, so mountains might speak or be praised as if they were a chieftain; the Psalms (held in particular reverence in Gaelic culture) talk of landscape in a similar way, with phrases such as the 'hills run like a deer.' In both, the land is recognized as alive.

"Gaelic has a different sense of time, purpose and achievement. The ideal is to maintain an equilibrium, as a saying from South Uist expresses it: Eat bread and weave grass, and then this year shall be as thou wast last year. It is close to Hannah Arendt's definition of wisdom as a loving concern for the continuity of the world."

And, I would add, to the Dineh (Navajo) concept of hózhó, or Walking in Beauty.

Howard in the Fairy Glen

For more on endangered and lost languages, I recommend Judith Thurman's poignant essay "A Loss for Words." She writes:

"There are approximately seven billion inhabitants of earth. They conduct their lives in one or several of about seven thousand languages -- multilingualism is a global norm. Linguists acknowledge that the data are inexact, but by the end of this century perhaps as many as fifty per cent of the world’s languages will, at best, exist only in archives and on recordings. According to the calculations of the Catalogue of Endangered Languages (ELCat) -- a joint effort of linguists at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, and at the University of Eastern Michigan -- nearly thirty language families have disappeared since 1960. If the historical rate of loss is averaged, a language dies about every four months."

Heather Altfelt's essay "Every Day Another Language Dies" is unusual and powerful. Here's a taste:

"It turns out that there was an ancient civilization that could speak Tree. They could understand the language of roots and the noise of the fungi, a highly developed tongue albeit difficult to translate. They refused to write down the sounds because they could hear the molecules of the papyrus crying. They also had one word that they learned from the wind that they only used with stones -- and absolutely never with each other -- that, if uttered, was a spell, a name you could carry with you that would open the gates to the city of forever. The word died with them, buried in the folds of old brains and skin, zippered into the earth beneath a tel somewhere between the Tigris and the Yellow River.

Altfelt's piece was selected for the 2019 edition of The Best American Essays, edited by Rebecca Solnit, and is simply exquisite.

Lamb nursing in the Fairy Glen

Words:  The passages above are quoted from Love of Country by Madeleine Bunting (Granta, 2016),  "A Loss for Words" by Judith Thurman (The New Yorker, March 30, 2015), and "Every Day "Another Language Dies" by Heather Altfelt (Conjunctions #70, and LitHub, May 29, 2018). The Kathleen Jamie poem in the picture captions is from Best Scottish Poems 2013, edited by David Robinson (The Scottish Poetry Library). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Sheep (and Howard) in the Fairy Glen, near Uist on the Isle of Skye, Inner Hebrides, 2017. A related post: True names.


Selkies: the accommodation of paradox

Grey seal

The Summer Isles by Philip Marsden

Two weeks ago, I promised one last post about Philip Marsden's extraordinary book The Summer Isles...and then illness struck, and it's taken me this long to recover. My apologies for the delay. It's good to be back in the studio at last.

In the following passage, Marsden discusses the "seal people" tales to be found on the wild west coasts of the Celtic Fringe. It comes from the final chapters of the text as he sails his boat through the Hebrides, spotting seals along the way:

Seal and pup on land"Seals were always selkies here along the Atlantic coast. They led semi-human lives. They lived in their own world beneath the waves, one that mirrored that of people's above. They were capable of human speech and human emotions, and they had underwater houses with doors and windows, the same as us. Once a year, they gathered at a place off the Donegal coast and elected from their number a leader, a selkie king. Sometimes they could be heard singing of the seal city underwater, its coral gardens and mother-of-pearl facades. To those who heard the song, it had a hypnotic effect: a delicate air, and words which spoke of a place ten thousand times more beautiful than the sky. The selkie world was a version of the otherworld.

"Selkies could make near-seamless appearances on land. Female selkies would slip out of their sealskins and take on the form of women and sleep with men. Male selkies would also take on human form and father children. They might take those children back to the sea, or they might leave them on land. You could never be sure which were the selkie children; they might be very good at swimming, or very small, or 'very sharp indeed at the learning...particularly at the Hebrew.' Then one day they'd just disappear. There were whole families in Ireland and Scotland who were known to have the seal blood in them, and the Scottish folklorist John Gregorson Campbell speaks of the Clann 'ic Codrum nan ron of North Uist, 'the MacCodrums of the seals', so named for their seal ancestry.

Daughter of the Sea by Tristan Elwell

"In the 1950s, David Thomson travelled in the west of Ireland and Scotland gathering selkie stories. In the tender account of his journey, The People of the Sea, he tells of meeting a man of the road down in Kerry who was descended from seals. 'The seals are a class of a fairy,' explained the man. 'They come out of the north of Ireland, from some place by the County Donegal.' He then told Thompson about a boy who, collecting kelp one day, stabbed a seal. The boy watched as it turned into a red-headed man and ran away. Years later, when the boy was a man, he was fishing near Tory Island. When he went ashore, he saw that red-headed man, and the man said thank you to the boy for what he'd done years earlier. He'd been freed from his seal-state by the stabbing.

Grey seal underwater

Selkie by Gina Litherland

"...The selkie stories were sustained on these coasts by the constant presence of seals. Some strange congress takes place when you look at a seal, some hint of recognition, reinforced by the sense that it appears to be mutual. In many places, seals were believed to be fallen angels, the ones who, expelled from heaven, fell into the sea. But it was less their angelic nature than their human habits that were recalled again and again. Seamus Heaney said of the seal belief that it represents 'the old trope of human beings as creatures dwelling in a middle state between the world of the angels and the animals.'

Selkie by Katherine Soutar"Yet shape-shifting is less about affirming man's separation from the beasts than the possibility that we remain part of them. It implies a world in which the boundaries between things do not -- or should not -- exist. It is the same parrallel country of fairies and angels, the spirit world, into which we might occasionally glimpse or even travel. We might be locked within our own frames, within our own mortality, but a bit of us remains mobile. 'Of bodies changed to other forms I tell,' Ovid declares in the opening line of Metamorphoses, and goes on to make the case that our souls are essentially fluid, and 'adopt / in their migrations ever-varying forms.' Introducing his own version of Metamorphoses, Ted Hughes reflects on the moment of transition, repeated in each of the poems: 'Ovid locates and captures the particular frisson of the event, where the all-too-human victim stumbles into the mythic arena and is transformed.' The tales might be salutary, cautionary or retributive, but they hold out the promise of transformation -- and transformation answers to the perennial itch at the core of our condition: the dissatisfaction of being, and the promise of becoming.

"The endurance of the selkie myth can also be explained as an example of the poetic faculty, where everything can be revealed by finding its parallel. It comes from that strange region on cognitive territory where the chaos around us is briefly ordered by analogy, and the analogy grows into story and the story evolves and mutates into myth, a species in itself, both true and untrue. Selkie belief is a measure of the abiding need for such ambiguity. We might think that belief means certainty, but it doesn't -- it works better as the accomodation of paradox. Seals can be people and people can be seals . That's it."

Selkie Boy by Jackie Morris

I highly recommend listening to an interview with Philip Marsden on the Scotland Outdoors radio programme (BBC Sounds). The whole interview is engrossing, but from the 29:54 mark onward the discussion focuses on myth, folklore, the "thin" places where the borders between the mortal world and the otherworld is porous, and the particular pull of such stories during these months of pandemic lock-down.

"I think," he says, "that the quieting down of things -- the way we've had to slow down and lock into a daily rhythm of repeated things -- has opened up the imagination, and re-exposed us to ways of thinking that we lose when we rush around....We're re-discovering, perhaps, a layer of the imagination that used to be quite normal."

Selkie drawing by Alan Lee

To end with: In the video below, Carolyn Allan and Jenny Keldie sing a classic selkie ballad from the Shetland and Orkney Islands, and explain its meaning to Phil Cunningam. 

Orkney seal

Words: The passage above is from The Summer Isles: A Voyage of the Imagination by Philip Marsden (Granta, 2019). The poem in the picture captions is from Wain: LGBT Re-imaginings of Scottish Solklore(The Emma Press, 2019). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The artwork above is "Daughter of the Sea" by Tristan Elwell, "Selkie" by Gina Litherland, "Selkie" by Katherine Soutar, "Selkie Boy" by Jackie Morris, and "Selkie Skin" by Alan Lee.All rights reserved by the artists. 


The sídhe and the sìth

Looking into the Fairy Hill by Alan Lee

I'm focused on The Summer Isles by Philip Marsden this week, which I highly recommend seeking out. In the following passage, Marsden is en route from the northern tip of Ireland to the wild west coast of Scotland. He writes:

"The north and west of Ireland and the west of Scotland share a similar history, language, and ethnicity....Comparable too is the geology. The 'Dalradian Supergroup' is not a Glaswegian rock band but a band of rock, 'a metasedimentary and igneous rock succession that was deposited on the eastern margin of Laurentia between the late Neoproterozoic and Early Cambrian'. Right. It makes up a large part of the defining features of both Ireland and western Scotland, the same mountains, the same high sea-cliffs, the same curiosities (Giant's Causeway in Antrim, Fingal's Cave off Mull), the same peaks and open moor, the same islets and reefs, the same sense of a primal clash between rock and ocean. And it is that backdrop -- the gritty topography, the fractured shoreline, that has helped sustain the coastline's metaphysics, helped generate the wilder projections of outsiders and inhabitants alike, phantom islands from beyond its headlands, otherworlds from beneath its turf.

"In Ireland, they are sídhe, in Scotland, sìth -- each is pronounced the same: 'shee'. The fairy population share a folk DNA, as the human ones do. The definition of the Scottish folklorist John Gregorson Campbell covers them both: 'The Fairies, according to the Scoto-Celtic belief, are a race of beings, the counterparts of mankind in person, occupations and pleasures, but unsubstantial and unreal, ordinarily invisible, noiseless in their motions, and having their dwellings underground, in hills and green mounds of rock or earth.'

Fairies by Alan Lee

"In a piece published in the Scots Observer in 1899, W.B. Yeats noted how prevalent the 'fairy belief' remained in both countries. Over the years, though, the sídhe and the sìth had diverged. The Irish once, he claimed, were much better, or at least rather nicer: 'For their gay and graceful doings you must go to Ireland, for their deeds of terror to Scotland.' He cited the Scottish tale of a child cutting turf. The child is struggling, until a hand is pushed up out of the bog with a sharp knife. The child's brothers respond by slicing off the hand with the knife. Yeats claimed that would never happen in Ireland, where 'there is something of timid affection between men and spirits'. In Scotland, he claimed, an innate mistrust existed of that unseen world: 'You have made the Darkness your enemy...you have discovered the fairies to be pagan and wicked. You would like to have them all before the magistrate.'

Fairy Woman by Alan Lee"As for the islands, the western coast of Scotland frays into many more actual islands than that of Ireland, but fewer imaginary ones. One tale that is found, though, in several versions in the Hebrides begins with a man in boat, lost in a fog. He comes across an unknown island, and landing on it, he meets a woman. He stays with her, they have children. After many years on the island, he goes back to his former life. One day when he is old and blind, the man is brought a fish that no one can identify. Fingering it, he recognizes its shape. He asks to be taken out to the waters where it was caught, and there is the island. He is put ashore, and he and the island disappear.

"It is a simple and beautiful story, and one that challenge's Yeats's partisan point. Many aspects of fairy belief do not stand up to any kind of literal scrutiny: little people living in holes in the ground, stealing the substance of people, or changing them into animals. But behind them lies a more persistent thought -- common not just to the closely related fairies of Ireland and Scotland but to belief worldwide: that other versions of our own life exist. They could be in the past, in the future, or in the never-never. They might be over the horizon, or on an imaginary island. But at one time or another, we will go looking for them. Perhaps we're always looking. "

The Scribe by Alan Lee

The art today is by my friend and village neighbour Alan Lee, recipient of the Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration, the Academy Award for film design, and many other honours. Some of the images above are from his classic book Faeries (with Brian Froud); other drawings are from Alan's private collection. To learn more about the wider range of his exquisite work, go here.

The Fairy Court by Alan Lee

The Summer Isles by Philip Marsden

Words & Pictures: The passage above is from The Summer Isles: A Voyage of the Imagination by Philip Marsden (Granta, 2019). The artwork is by Alan Lee. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.

Further reading: For more information on fairy lore, "Fairies in Legend, Lore, and Literature" and "Tales of Fairy Changelings."


The simple intensity of being alive

The Summer Isles

I'm focused on The Summer Isles by Philip Marsden this week, so here's a second passage from this wonderful book. The following section takes place on the unihabited island of Inishdooey, off Ireland's Donegal coast. Marsden writes:

"Long ago, when magic was still on tap for the righteous, Saint Dubhthach and Saint Columba had a competition. They both wanted the challenge of ministering to Tory Island, so they stood beside each other on the mainland, and each saint swung his crozier with huge force. Columba's landed on Tory, some five miles off. Dubhthach could only manage a couple of miles and his reached here, on Inishdooey.

"The walls of Dubhthach's monastery were still discernible. I stepped inside, with an immediate awareness of hallowed ground. Lumps of quartzite dotted the stonework. Above the east window, the stones of the lintel fanned out like a sunrise. The opening itself was little wider than a slit, designed to celebrate the daily wonder of light returning, by capturing so little of it. [...]

"Out on the high cliff, I lay face down to look over the rim. A pool was spread out far below, enclosed in an almost complete circle of sheer rock. The circle was perforated at sea level by several low arches, and the sun shone through these arches, filling the sea inside with a brilliant green translucence. Rays of light penetrated the top layer of water,  flickering beneath it like fish backs. It was a minor miracle, an everyday occurrence that went on happening even though there was no one to see it; the sort of prospect that once invited those solitaries living in such places to write:

     Delightful I think it to be in the bosom of an isle
     On the crest of a rock
     That I may look there on the manifold
     face of the sea.

Cliff Face  Tory Island by Derek Hill

"From across the golden centuries of Irish letters, few lines now have the raw impact of the verses known as the early 'nature poems'. What survives of them -- a fraction, probably -- suggests a tradition that began in its written form in about the eighth century. They were unlike anything else in medieval literature. What their authors drew on was what was normally sublimated to the collective or the divine, something that out here on the rocky fringes of the world was often in full flight: the individual sensibility. Their subject was the natural world -- so familiar, so quotidian, it was rarely considered worth writing about. But the verses' ease and confidence suggest that it had been expressed for a long time.

The Quiet Wave by Derek Hill

" 'Comparing these poems with the medieval European lyric,' wrote the scholar K.H. Jackson, who anthologized them, 'is like comparing the emotions of an imaginative adolescent who has just grown to realize the beauty of nature with those of an old man who has been familiar with it for a lifetime.' Seamus Heaney sensed in them the 'tang and clarity of a pristine world full of woods and water and birdsong'. He marvelled at the 'little jabs of delight in the elemental' noting that, in their distinctiveness, they make 'a spring-water music out of certain feelings in a way unmatched in any other European language.'

"The poems were the work of Irish monks, part-Christian in spirit and part-pagan, who pursued their devotions in the remotest of places, like here on Inishdooey. Some of the works were formal, or merged into longer cycles of story -- in Buile Suibhne or Immram Brain. Others were more direct -- simple observations, for instance, of the sounds heard outside a hermit's hut:

Cliff Face by Derek Hill    The voice of the wind against the branchy wood
     Grey with cloud;
     Cascades of the river,
     The swans song, lovely music.

Or of summer:

    The smooth sea flows,
     Season when the ocean falls asleep;
     Flowers cover the world.

Or of a cherish island: 

     Gleaning of purple lichen on its rocks,
     Grass without blemish on its slopes,
     A sheltering cloak over its crags;
     Gambolling of fawns, trout leaping.

From the late nineteenth century onward, the nature poems were rediscovered, translated and celebrated by Celticists, along with every other surviving word of early Irish. In 1911, Kuno Meyer defined them by their modest intent: 'To seek out and watch and love Nature, in its tiniest phenomena as in its grandest.' And he was not shy in declaring their significance: 'these poems occupy a unique position in the history of the world'.

"Like Japanese haiku and tanka, the Irish poems achieve their effect through immediacy. The act of recording what makes up a particular moment -- birdsong, trees, sun and clouds -- is more than just an assembling of scenic elements. It's a way of saying something timeless and urgent: do away with the not-here, this is what there is, the simple intensity of being alive:

     The woodland thicket overtops me,
     the blackbird sings me a lay, praise I will not conceal:
     above my lined little book
     the trilling of birds sings to me.

"Plain statement gives the verse the crisp purity of snow. 'Its makers', thought another of its scholarly advocates, Gerald Murphy, 'possessed a secret of keeping the reader's mind alert and happy, which they seem to have learnt from the story-tellers of the Old Irish period. It consisted in never saying more than was necessary, in passing rapidly over the abstract and discursive.'

Tory Island from Tor More by Derek Hill

"Similar nature poems, of the same period, are found in Welsh. But one thing that distinguished the Irish ones is their treatment of the sea -- a 'genuine delight mingled with terror'. It is the view of people for whom the sea was a part of everyday life, a coastal or island view of what brought pilgrims and supplies, storms and raiding Norsemen, and which offered the physical backdrop to prayer and contemplation. 'The ocean is full, the sea is in flood / Lovely is the home of ships.'

The Book of Dimma, Irish, 8th century

The same focused attention can be found in the marginalia of the period. While the monks dutifully transcribed Latin texts from one manuscript to another, they often jotted down their thoughts, in Irish, on the edge of the page. In themselves they are hardly revelations, but in the context of their time, their confessional tone is remarkable. On one manuscript from the early ninth century -- Cassiodorus's commentary on the Psalms -- is a series of scribblings that offer an almost filmic view of the scribe, a sentient individual. He complains about the vellum. One folio is too 'hairy', another too 'bald'. He is feeling slow: 'My brain is heavy today. I don't know what is the matter with me.' The scriptorium he works in is chilly and gloomy: 'It's cold today. It's only natural. It's winter.' 'Welcome to us is the season coming next. We won't hide what it is -- it is summer.'

From The Book of Kells"The changing seasons produced some of the most powerful of the Irish nature poems. To celebrate the hinge-points of the year were the two great annual festivals -- Bealtaine and Samhain. At the beginning of November, Samhain marked the moment when the harvest was all done, the fruits gathered and the meat ready for salting. But the Irish winter poems go far beyond the practical. In their unadorned details, they manage to suggest not only deep threat but also the sensation of the coming season, in all its wild beauty. It's hard to read such lines without shivering:

   My tidings for you: the stag bellows,
   Winter snows, summer has gone.

   Wind high and cold, low the sun,
   Short his course, sea running high.

   Deep-red the bracken, its shape all gone -
   The wild goose has raised his wonted cry.

   Cold has caught the wings of birds,
   Season of ice - these are my tidings.

"I looked north across the water, towards Scotland. The evenings were growing longer, the early mornings chillier. There was still a long way to go before the Summer Isles, and autumn was now waiting at the days' edges."

Midnight at Tory Island

Words: The passage above is from The Summer Isles by Philip Marsden (Granta, 2019); all rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: The paintings are by Derek Hill (1916-2000), an English portraitist and landscape painter who spent many years working from a hut on Tory Island, near Inishdooey. The early Irish manuscripts pictured are The Book of Dimma (8th century) and details from The Book of Kells (9th century). To learn more about them, visit the online "Early Irish Manuscripts Project" from the Library of Trinity College Dublin.

A related post from earlier this year, on the Celtic monks of Ireland & Scotland: "Self-isolation and the peregrini."


Sailing to the otherworld

As I'm sure you all know by now, I love recommending books here on Myth & Moor, sharing my appreciation for authors whose work has fired my imagination or touched my heart, and might do the same for you. Every once in a while, though, I read a book that I love so much that I don't know how to talk about it; every description seems inadequate. The Summer Isles: A Voyage of Imagination by Philip Marsden is such a book: it's simply one of the best that I've ever read.

The basic premise of the text is this: Mardsen sails from his home in Cornwall (on the south-west tip of England) to the the Summer Isles (on the far north coast of Scotland), taking in the remote islands of western Ireland and the Scottish Hebrides along the way. He makes the long journey alone in an old wooden sloop -- and while re-counting this thrilling, harrowing adventure he also meditates on the myths, literature, language, and history of Britain and Ireland's western coasts, and the imaginative hold islands have had on us from antiquity to the present.

Prospero sails to his island of exile  by Edmund Dulac

Here's a taste of Marsden's prose, from the opening of The Summer Isles:

"Long ago -- when the saints had not yet reached these western shores, and heroes were still in possession of superhuman strength, and poets could cut down kings with a single satire, and music could put even the most fearsome warrior to sleep -- another region of the earth existed, another layer to the earth's surface. The Celtic, or Brythonic, otherworld was a magical place where there was no sin or labour, no old age. It was a place of beauty and joy and shimmering palaces, where they trees hung heavy with fruit and blossom, fountains burst with cool water, and cauldrons remained full, however much was drawn from them. 

The Sea King's Daughter by Gennady Spirin"In the manuscripts of medieval Irish literature are a group of stories known as echtrai -- 'outings' or journeys to the otherworld. Only a few have survived, but what they reveal is the extraordinary hold that the otherworld exerts on the imagination. Magical apples, pure love and strange beasts all feature. In Echtrae Chonnlai, Connlae, son of Conn, is invited by a woman to visit the otherworld, and her description of it is so enticing that he is overcome by longing (éolchaire). He disappears with her in a glass ship, and is never seen again. Cormac was the nephew of Conn, and he too was taken to the otherworld, but returned. He told of two forts surrounded by bronze walls and thatched with wings of white birds, and a golden cup that shattered if an untruth was ever uttered.

"A good deal of scholarly work has been carried out to try and pinpoint the otherworld from literary sources, to unpick Christian elements that may or may not overlay pagan origins, to trace recurring features and examine possible outside influences. But when dealing with such a subject, conclusions have a habit of sliding like sand between your fingers. Reading the stories, letting the images take shape, is a much better way to understand their significance. They grew from the imagination, and it is the imagination that links us to them across the ages. The otherworld might not be the term we still use, but the ability to believe in places that are invisible, to build stories around them and inhabit them, remains the defining attribute of our species. The great Celtic scholar John Carey, who has studied early Irish history as rigorously as anyone, concludes: 'I would suggest the Irish Otherworld's characteristics are, by and large, those of the imagination itself -- more specifically, of the imagination as expressed in narrative.'

The Children of Lir by Gennady Spirin

"Natural mounds and hillocks, old castles, ancient burial sites, misty hollows or lakes -- these are the sort of places where the passing traveller might encounter the otherworld. But nowhere is more closely associated with its fantastic features than offshore islands. The risk of a sea passage add a certain allure to anywhere across the water, while the coast itself tends to throw up its own visual ambiguities -- refractive tricks of the light, land-like fog banks. Add to that the boundlessness of the ocean, the colourful tales of returning sailors, and it is no wonder that the western sea became such a bountiful playground of imaginary places.

More illustrations from The Tempest by Edmund Dulac

"In those days, when navigation was little more than cosmic speculation, the waters to this side of Britain and Ireland has many more islands -- Tír na nÓg ('and of the young'), Tír na mBeo ('land of the living'), Tír Tairngire ('land of promise'), Emain Ablach, Avalon, Kilstapheen, Imaire Buidhe, Lyonesse, Heather-Bleather. There were islands that appeared once every seven years, islands that drifted around like giant plankton, populated islands beneath the sea. There were enchanted islands like Inishbofin, and longed-for islands like Hinba and the Green Islands of Hebridean lore. There were islands that turned out not to be islands but great sea monsters when the crews of St. Brendan and Máel Dúin lit fires on their scaly shores."

The Enchanter by Alan Lee

Islands reflect our inner wishes and beliefs, as much now as in the past. He writes:

"We may have purged our charts of the imaginary, but that doesn't mean we do not long for mythical places. Our lives are still shaped not by reason but by hope and fear, by narrative, by projection. We seek to give form to such abstractions by attaching them to the shape of the world: hope is a hill, memory a house, fear is a cliff, disappointment an empty field. For all the pinpointing of every ruckle and molehill on the earth's surface, satellite imagery does not even begin to show the planet as we see it. Our maps may tell us where places are, and what they are, but they do nothing to reveal what they mean. Mircea Eliade suggested that mythical geography is 'the only geography man could never be without'. Oscar Wilde put it rather more graphically: 'A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail'.

The Argonauts by Edmund Dulac

"The islands of Britain and Ireland were themselves once regarded by Rome as an alter orbis -- semi-mythical places detached from the three great continents of Africa, Asia and Europe. That they should make their own satellite islands into otherworlds is hardly surprising. 'It would seem that the Irish Fairy Talesnotion of the otherworld have a very particular resonance for writers in the North Atlantic archipelago,' writes medievalist Aisling Byrne. 'National landscape shapes national literature, as the multifarious Greek islands gave episodic shape to the Odyssey, the unbounded reaches of the North Atlantic informed fantasies of insular travel and discovery'.

"The otherworld is more than just a fantasy island, full of strange creatures, magical trees and time-warps. It is all those places that we imagine, that we long for, that sustain our brief span on this earth. Out here in the far west, along the fractured coastline of Britain and Ireland, lies Europe's dreaming frontier, its open horizon, where the solid becomes fluid, the fixed wobbles a little and the cliffs and seas grow their own elaborate mythology. It has always occupied a certain place in the collective consciousness, and drawn a certain type to its shore."

During this time of global uncertainty, when physical travel is now difficult (and for some of us impossible), I highly recommend this armchair journey through islands real and imaginary....and those shifting, tricksy, liminal places that are neither one nor the other.

This book is pure enchantment.

The Sea King's Daughter by Gennady Spirin

The Summer Isles by Philip Marsden

Words: The passage above is from The Summer Isles by Philip Marsden (Granta, 2019); all rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: Illustrations for "The Tempest" by Edmund Dulac, illustrations for "The Sea King's Daughter" and "The Children of Lir" by Gennady Spirin, two more illustrations for "The Tempest" by Edmund Dulac, "The Enchanter" by Alan Lee, "The Argonauts" by Edmund Dulac,  "Becuma of the White Skin" (from Irish Fairy Tales) by Arthur Rackham, and "The Sea King's Realm"  by Gennady Spirin. All rights reserved by the artists or their estates.


Wild empathy

Walking with Tilly

In yesterday's post, Scott Russell Sanders discussed the act of empathy with animals, and others unlike ourselves, in relation to shamanic shape-shifting: as a means of "reaching out in imagination to a fellow creatures."  Reflecting on this has led me back to Jay Griffith's essay "Forests of the Mind" (2012), on the power of metaphor in shamanism and art. She writes:

"[Shape-shifting] is part of the repertoire of the human mind, cousin to mimesis, empathy and Keats’s 'negative capability,' known to poets and healers since the beginning of time. It did not hold literal truth, quite obviously, but had a 'slanted, metaphoric truth' ....

"Shape-shifting is a transgressive experience, a crossing over: something flickers inside the psyche, a restless flame in a gust of wind, endlessly transformative. The mind moves from its literal pathways to its metaphoric flights. Art is made like this, from a volatile bewitchment, of a self-forgetting and an identification with something beyond.

Walking 2

Walking 3

"Ted Hughes once said that the secret of writing poetry is to 'imagine what you are writing about. See it and live it ... Just look at it, touch it, smell it, listen to it, turn your self into it.' One writing exercise Hughes suggested for students was titled: 'I am the Amazon.' We are what we think, and we humans have a way to become other, in a necessary, wild and radical empathy.

Walking 4

Walking 5

"Shape-shifting involves a willingness to make mimes in the mind, copying something else. Art, meanwhile, depends on mimesis furthering our desire to know and to understand. In a recent, Ovidian, dance piece, 'Swan,' French dancers performed and swam with live swans, imitating the birds in a mime which alluded to the metamorphosis of all art, and to the artists’ ability to lose themselves in order to mirror something beyond.

Walking 6

Walking 7

Walking 8

"'But we, when moved by deep feeling, evaporate; we/breathe ourselves out and away,' wrote Rilke in 'The Second Elegy.'

"In making art, the artist expires, breathing herself out to allow the inspiring to happen, the breathing in of glinting universal air, intelligent with many minds, electric and on the loose. Artist, shape-shifter, shaman or poet, all are lovers of metamorphosis, all are minded to vision, insight and dream."

Walking 9

Meadow flowers

Walking 10

I recommend reading Griffith's essay in full, as well as her splendid book Wild: An Elemental Journey -- an exploration of "wildness" and "wilderness" in nature, culture, myth, and art.

Walking 11

Words: The quoted passage by Jay Griffiths above is from "Forests of the Mind" (Aeon Magazine, 12 October, 2012). The poem in the picture captions is from Dark Sweet: New & Selected Poems by Linda Hogan (Coffeehouse Press, 2014). All rights reserved by the authors. 

Pictures: An afternoon walk and a visit with some of our neighbours in the Devon hills.


Wild Communion

Charlotte by Laurence Winram

In yesterday's post, I recommended Mozart's Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, a marvelous book about Mozart's bird companion (Star), the writer's own pet starling (Carmen), and reflections on this common bird, widely detested in North America for being nonnative and invasive. Today, I'd like to quote a beautiful passage from the latter chapters of the text looking at the nature of our wild relationships with the more-than-human world, a subject that often comes up in our discussions in the Mythic Arts field.

Haupt writes:

"When I set out to follow the story of Mozart and his starling, I saw in its center a shining, irresistible paradox: one of the greatest and most loved composers in all of history was inspired by a common, despised starling. Now I muse upon the many facets of this tale, and it is wonderful, yes, even more wonderful than I had imagined. But looking back at the trail that I have wandered with these kindred birds -- one in history and one in my home -- I see also that, as both humans and animals so often are, I have been tricked by my attraction to the shiny little object. For in the end, it is not the exceptionality of this story that is the true wonder. It is its ordinariness.

"In the creatures that intertwine with our lives, those we see daily and those that watch us from urban and wild places -- from between branches and beneath leaves and under eaves and stairwells and culverts and the sides of walks and pathways -- we share everything. We share breath, and biology, and blood. She share our needs for food and water and shelter. We share the imperative to mate and to give new life and to keep our young safe and warm and fed. We share susceptibility to disease and the potential to suffer and an inevitable frailty in the face of these things. We share a certain death. We share everything, constantly, every moment of the day and night, across eons. And in this shared earthly living, when we give our attention to it, we find the basis of our compassion, and our empathy for other creatures....

Each creature has its particular ways and wiles. Each being has its own presence, voice, silence, song, body, place. We are bound by our sameness and uniqueness in equal measure -- both spring from our shared being on a vital, conscious earth. This is wild communion. And it is in this recognition that we move beyond simple compassion to a more certain, more essential sense of relatedness, of kinship.

Mihaela 1 by Laurence Winram

"Mozart felt this, I know. Like me, he was drawn at first to the shiny thing -- in his case it was Star's singing back to him the song he himself had written. But in his elegy poem [written upon Star's death] we see that a different relationship evolved. The bird's mimicry is not once mentioned. This is a poem to a kindred creature whose presence brought play, sound, song, joy, and friendliness to the maestro's life. And in the work that Star inspired, this is what we see too. A shared sense of mischief, music, and delight. The word kinship comes from the Old English -- of the same kind, and therefore related. Kindly and kindness also grow from this root -- the bearing toward others that kinship inspires.

Nikita II by Laurence Winram

"I have always thought of all creatures -- all organisms really -- as relations. Whether wandering alone in deep wilderness or just leaning against a tree growing beside an urban sidewalk, I have no difficulty feeling, as if in a dreamtime, the roots of our relatedness -- ecologically, yes, but also with an overlay of the sacred, the holy. Starlings, though pretty, were a rift in this vision. They fluttered outside this wholeness. But my thinking has evolved. Ecologically, it is true -- starlings do not belong in this country, this city; but relationally, it is not true. We live together in a tangled complexity. I listen to the starlings mimic back to me my own profound ecological shortcomings. Carmen is a creature with a body, voice, and consciousness in the world. In this, we are sisters. And all these unwelcome starlings on the grassy parking strip? Yes, they are my relations too.

Charlotte 1 by Laurence Winram

"The Cartesian belief in the absolute separateness of lives, bodies, and brains maintains a foothold in the traditions of our modern culture. We see it in the ways we are pitted against one another in commerce, in education, and in the small, daily jealousies of our own minds. We see it in the ways that we continue to find it culturally acceptable to diminish animals in agriculture, in entertainment, and in scientific experimentation. And yes, when we are attentive, we find that we are not separate, not alone. We are not isolated little minds wandering on a large, indifferent earth. We are surrounded by our kin, by all of life, beings with whom we are wayfarers together. Instead of walking upon, we walk within, and this within-ness brings our imaginations to life. We are inspired -- literally "breathed upon" -- together.

"Our creativity and our connection to other beings is tangled in a beautiful etymology. The words creative and creature spring from the same Latin root, creare, "to produce, to grow, to bring into existence." It was Ged, Ursula Le Guin's beloved young wizard of Earthsea, who learned after the fall of his individual pride that the wise person is "one who never sets himself apart from other living things, whether they have speech or not, and in later years he strove long to learn what can be learned, in silence, from the eyes of animals, the flight of birds, the slow gestures of trees." Through such understanding we arrive at a new wholeness. We become more receptive and free in body and imagination, and our unique potential for creative magnificence is enlivened. We become the listening artists of our own lives and culture."

Yes, indeed.

Fiona I by Laurence Winram

The art today is by Scottish photographer Laurence Winram. The imagery here is from his Shadow, Conemen, and Mythologos series. Please visit Winram's website and blog to see more.

"The ancient Greeks made sense of their world not only by logic but by myth too," says the artist. "They saw it was necessary to view things in these opposite ways in order to have a balanced understanding of their lives. I feel we have moved out of that balance, unconsciously letting go of that mythic element to our lives. As a result we've lost touch with our own personal vision and creativity. We let a dogmatic scientific perspective rule everything, from our dreams to our notions of the spiritual.

"I try to reflect on this, creating images that sometimes imagine a world where logic has been sidelined by the mythic, or images that mock our need to analyse and break down those parts of our life that we should truly respond to more intuitively."

Hazel Flew by Laurence Winram

Otto's Flight II by Laurence Winram

The passages above is from Mozart's Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt (Little, Brown & Co., 2017); all rights reserved by the author. Thanks again to William Todd Jones (via composer Hillary Tann) for passing the book on to me; and to Steve Toase for recommending Laurence Winram's work. All rights to the photography above reserved by the artist.